Revitalising the public sector is key to preparing for the future

Revitalising the public sector is key to preparing for the future

In his landmark review of the Australian Public Service, David Thodey AO forensically laid out the role of the APS and described a well-functioning public sector as “essential to the future prosperity and security of all Australians.”[1] This is because the public sector is critical to providing robust advice to government, implementing government policy, and keeping government in check. If the Greens want to be in a position to govern, or participate in government, we will need to ensure that a well-functioning public sector exists.

A diverse, thriving, secure and innovative public sector will put Australia in the best possible position to take on the challenges of our time. To make sure we can get action on all the issues we Greens care about, to meet the education, housing, health, energy, social security, environmental protection and infrastructure needs of our country, we need a well-staffed and highly skilled public service that can provide expert, impartial policy advice.

Thodey concluded that, following staff cuts and privatisation under successive governments, “bolder action” and “deep cultural change” is needed to revitalise the public sector.  It was a call to action that the government has largely ignored.  The public sector has continued to be hollowed out, losing more than 17,000 jobs since 2012 and becoming increasingly reliant on external consultants and labour hire firms to perform public functions. Increased funding in last year’s budget has done little to undo years of underfunding and outsourcing.

As with so many things, the Covid pandemic exposed, rather than created, cracks in our existing system. There was no publicly-owned vaccine facility that could be rapidly engaged to manufacture vaccines to meet local demand. Instead, we were left to the vagaries of international markets, diplomatic negotiations, and freight scheduling.

The already-strained Centrelink system administering income support payments buckled under the weight of new Jobseeker applications and Covid relief payments so essential to people’s survival.

There was no publicly-owned airline that could be directed to repatriate Australian citizens stranded overseas or to deliver vaccines to our Pacific neighbours. Without adequate quarantine facilities, States were forced to rely on a patchwork of quarantine hotels that became the source of several outbreaks.

The profit-over-people operations of a heavily privatised aged care system resulted in a tragic and unacceptable number of vulnerable patients dying preventable deaths.

Countless capability assessments and crisis planning were outsourced to consultants, at significant expense and with little transparency. And the task of strategising a way through the pandemic and beyond was delegated to a Covid Commission, peppered with fossil fuel industry representatives, whose ‘gas-led recovery’ plan delivered for political donors but resoundingly failed the Australian public.

Australia deserves better. A strong public sector offers opportunities for Australia to develop and implement innovative policy solutions, to design and build the technologies needed for a sustainable future, to experiment with bold options and rigorously evaluate their effectiveness. The “deep cultural change” Thodey called for is needed now more than ever. And, if we Greens want to play a constructive role in government, advocating and working for a well-resourced and independent public sector is crucial.

Building capacity

Experience has shown that outsourcing public services has made service delivery more expensive, less effective, and less transparent and accountable. Privatisation has not, despite successive governments’ insistence to the contrary, led to more efficient delivery of services.  

Inconsistent reporting makes it difficult to track exactly how much public money is spent on consultants, but there has been a significant increase over time, nearly tripling since the Rudd-Gillard government. The recorded value of contracts with the eight “significant providers of consultancy services” in 2018-19 exceeded $1.1 billion.  

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The Australia Institute estimates that that spending could have employed an additional 12,000 public servants.[2] Instead, lucrative contracts continue to line the pockets of big providers and many of those providers are also significant contributors to the coffers of both major parties, the big four (KPMG, Deloitte, PwC and EY) alone donating more than $5 million since 2012.  

Not only does this outsourcing reduce internal capacity, it cloaks the advice received in secrecy and elevates the risk of corruption. Consultancy reports are often subject to claims of commercial-in-confidence and their research and recommendations remain hidden, or only selectively disclosed. Consultants are unlikely to provide frank and fearless advice if it would mean not getting invited back to the trough. None of this serves the public interest.

There will be circumstances in which external consultants are the most appropriate source of advice, including avoiding a conflict of interest when internal work is being reviewed. However, capping spending on consultancies is essential to reduce costs, improve transparency, and redirect resources to developing skills and knowledge in-house.

Job security

Attracting and retaining high quality public servants is essential to ensure the public sector can meet future challenges and serve the complex and diverse needs of the Australian population. This starts with job security.

Outsourcing, labour hire contracts, and a significant increase in casualisation, driven by the arbitrary average staffing level cap imposed on the APS, mean many young people starting out with APS have no long-term security. They are being turned down for housing loans, and cannot see a clear career path in public service.

That’s why the Senate Select Committee on Job Security recommended removing the ASL cap, building in-house capabilities, and reining in the widespread practice of low minimum hours part-time contracts.[3] And it’s why the Greens are committed to restoring public sector numbers and 4%pa wage increases for APS level staff over the next four years to ensure public sector remuneration reflects the importance of the work being undertaken.

Beyond recognising the value of public sector work and providing financial security to staff, rising wages in the public sector drives private sector wage growth. Former Reserve Bank Governor, Phillip Lowe, has warned that public sector pay caps are entrenching low wage growth.[4] Raising public sector wages is one of the levers most likely to influence wage growth across the board, and it’s entirely within the government’s control.

But job security is not simply about increasing the number of roles available, providing competitive wages, or phasing out short term contracts, though all of these things are important. Public sector jobs must also allow staff to do their job without political interference or with fear that speaking up against government policy could cost them their career. The ability to provide robust, objective, expert  – “frank and fearless” – advice is critical to ensuring good governance. 

Over the past decade, public sector staff have witnessed what happened to Dr Michaela Banerji, Richard Boyle, David McBride, and Witness K, and will be thinking twice before speaking up. Dr Tjanara Goreng Goreng, the Greens Senate candidate for the ACT, recently spoke about her own experience in raising concerns about the Northern Territory intervention. She said:

I know how hard it is. And nobody should be put through this. My experience was so traumatic and revolting that I don’t want that ever to happen to another public servant.[5]

Where staff feel that challenging a proposal, questioning a policy approach, or pointing out the on-ground impacts of a funding decision puts their job at risk, the quality of advice is diminished. Without a strong independent integrity commission and a whistleblower protection commission, public servants will continue to feel that the cost of revealing government misconduct or challenging poor policy decisions is too high. This diminishes governance.

Expectations that public servants will provide frank, apolitical advice can be met without demanding that staff disengage from public life. Public servants are not robots, severed from their communities, their passions, or the things that led them to serve the public. Subject to managing any conflicts of interest, public servants are entitled to a life outside of work that is not constrained by their role. We rely on public servants’ expertise, their understanding of community sentiment and practical policy implications, their knowledge of history to inform their advice.  Allowing staff to engage in public debate makes for better public servants, better able to judge what is in the public interest. 

Diversity, equality and inclusion

Finally, but critically, a public sector that represents the community should look like the community it represents. The APS must set the standard for diversity and inclusion, and for gender equality.  Workforce strategies must be implemented to engage, retain, support and elevate First Nations people, disabled people, older workers, young workers, and people from culturally diverse backgrounds.

The APS is a significant employer across the country and can make a real difference through positive recruitment and retention strategies.

Greens’ plans

As we head into a critical election, I am proud to have launched a detailed plan to build a stronger, agile, diverse and capable public service. Our plan will:

  • Restore the number of jobs in the Australian Public Service to match 2012 levels
  • Lift APS level staff wages by 4% p/a over the next four years
  • Limit outsourcing to labour hire firms and the consultancies to 7.5% of an agency’s budget
  • Reform appointment processes to reduce politicisation
  • Ensure public servants can participate in public debate and run for election
  • Protect public sector whistleblowers
  • Require public sector agencies to report on, and address, their gender pay gap
  • Champion diverse and inclusive employment through targeted APS workforce strategies

We will also reverse the failures of privatisation by re-nationalising key functions, establishing Clean Energy Australia, Power Australia, Manufacturing Australia, a federal housing trust and a National Centre for DIsease Control, and strengthening institutions like the CSIRO, ABC, SBS and the NBN. 

By cutting back on bloated private consultancies and redirecting the money towards rebuilding the public service, we will create good, secure jobs, boost the quality and availability of public services, and strengthen the standard of policy advice for government.

By giving public servants confidence that challenging proposals, raising concerns, and disclosing misconduct will not put their job at risk, we will improve integrity within government.

By championing diversity and gender equity and ensuring public servants can continue to live their lives, engage on issues that matter to them, we will encourage a more representative range of people to choose a public sector career.  

A stronger, robust and independent public service with in-house expertise, experience and strategic capacity is more important now than it has ever been. The Greens will engage with the next government to change the culture of outsourcing, political appointments, media-driven policy, and lack of faith in staff. This change will be essential for a revitalised public sector that can drive the transition to a new, sustainable economy, and for building a collaborative governance structure better equipped to serve the public now and into the future.   

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[1] Commonwealth of Australia Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Our Public Service, Our Future. Independent Review of the Australian Public Service, December 2019, p8

[2] Australia Institute. 2021. “Talk Isn’t Cheap”, p1, p1

[3] Senate Select Committee on Job Security, Second interim report: insecurity in publicly-funded jobs, October 2021, Recommendations 3, 18, 27 and 29

[4] David Marin-Guzman. “Lowe calls for 3pc pay rises for public sector.” Australian Financial Review, 9 Aug 2019.

[5] Barlow, K. “Why Greens candidate Tjanara Goreng Goreng is running for the ACT Senate”, Canberra Times, 19 March 2022

 To read the suite of public sector policies, go to: